'SNL' premiere recap: Highlights, lowlights, and whatever Arcade Fire was doing -- VIDEO

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Image Credit: NBC

The theme of Saturday Night Live‘s 39th season opener: “SNL is back… and starring a bunch of people you’ve never heard of!”

This meta focus made sense — as Tina Fey(‘s plastic surgeon) said in her monologue, this is a “rebuilding year” for NBC’s sketch series. But even though the show seemed determined to remind us about how much it had changed, the premiere was a fairly smooth ride from start to finish. Maybe that was due to a longer rehearsal period than usual; maybe it was the steadying presence of Fey herself, who always seems to have a blast when she returns to her TV home. Or maybe it’s because SNL itself has become a well-oiled machine, one built to survive any major departures — except perhaps that of Lorne Michaels himself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s pull back and discuss the show itself — its best moments, its worst moments, and… whatever you’d call Arcade Fire.

Best Sketch
It’s never a good sign when you can guess a sketch’s premise immediately. But even though my eyes rolled as soon as the airport set appeared and Kate McKinnon began talking about boarding a plane, our first post-monologue bit was a pleasant surprise — thanks mostly to sharp writing (“business travelers, please board so you can begin working on graphs”), committed performances (Bobby Moynihan’s slooooow walk to the door as an Elite Premium Farter), and a healthy dose of weird.

Honorable Mention
“New Cast Member or Arcade Fire,” an idea that’s been done before — but was pretty delightful all the same. (Though the sketch did also point out how blindingly white SNL‘s new players are. Seriously, what will it take for this show to cast a black woman? Maya Rudolph left six years ago!)

Worst Sketch
In theory, I understand why SNL insists on starting nearly every episode with a topical, politically-themed cold open. Depending on sketches like these means giving the writers one less thing to worry about each week — and they also give Jay Pharoah something to do. (Why the show seems allergic to casting him otherwise, I’ll never know.) But in a world where Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are doing top-notch political satire every single night, SNL‘s attempts at the same thing just feel perfunctory and toothless. As EW columnist Mark Harris tweeted last night, “I feel like every time SNL does a political sketch now, someone has told them, ‘Be fair to both sides.’ (And funny to neither.)”

Best Musical Moment
This seems an appropriate moment to mention Arcade Fire’s “Here Comes the Night Time,” the bizarre fever dream of a concert special that followed tonight’s SNL premiere. There was a surreal Montreal disco (sorry, discotheque); there was footage of Michael Cera discussing tiny bananas in perfect Spanish; there were fake early ’80s-style commercials featuring Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim of “Tim & Eric;” there were Zach Galifianakis and Bill Hader as a pair of astronauts; there was James Franco, obviously. Unfortunately, NBC hasn’t posted any footage of this walk on the weird side quite yet — so you’ll have to be content with the band’s SNL performance of “Afterlife,” featuring blinding white costumes and Win Butler’s Hamburglar makeup mask. Seriously, what is in the water in Canada?

Cameo Corner
Aaron Paul, bitch! The Breaking Bad star did triple duty on last night’s episode, popping up in the cold open, Weekend Update, and a pre-taped fake commercial for e-meth (like e-cigarettes, but with more tweaking). It’s almost like Paul was auditioning for an eventual turn as host… an idea that I fully support.

The WTF Award
“Cinema Classics,” a.k.a. “The One With All the Taxidermy”: part “Toonces the Driving Cat,” part “The Falconer,” all very, very strange. (Though it’s nothing compared to Arcade Fire; those guys set the weirdness bar very high.)

New Cast MVP
Three of SNL‘s freshest faces scored starring roles at various points last night. Noel Wells took on Lena Dunham in a Girls parody that seemed either written or “inspired” by ex-SNL writer Simon Rich; longtime SNL writer and new featured player Mike O’Brien played the world’s first used car salesman in an amusing sketch appropriately titled “The First Used Car Commercial DIdn’t Go Very Well;” and Kyle Mooney got his very own Weekend Update spotlight, playing terrible standup comedian Bruce Chandling. While Mooney’s bit carried more than a whiff of Fred Armisen about it (just call Bruce “The White Fericito”), he did show great commitment and confidence — and being given his own Update bit in this year’s very first episode speaks volumes about the show’s confidence in him. The bottom line: Keep an eye on Mooney.

Overall MVP
There are several contenders here: Host Fey, who really made the most of her opening monologue (Queef Latina!); Kenan Thompson, who was more visible last night than he’s ever been before; Aaron Paul, who clearly deserves a whole episode as host. My vote, though, goes to Bobby Moynihan, who delivered two of the night’s biggest laughs: the elite farter face and the newest installment of “Drunk Uncle.” (“You went to school until you were 8, and then you got married to a factory!”)

Extras

- Moynihan shouting his support for Chris Christie in the cold open seemed appropriate — since he’ll probably be the one playing New Jersey’s governor if Christie runs for president in 2016.

- Tina Fey checked her boobs before launching into her monologue — a nice nod to her Emmy night nip slip. Also: Was she actually throwing shade at Katie Holmes’ tap dancing skills?

- With Bill Hader gone, has Kenan become SNL‘s new go-to fake game show host?

- I haven’t said anything yet about Cecily Strong’s first turn at the Update desk, mostly because there’s not much to say: She was fine if not spectacular, understandable given her obvious nerves. Things will only get better once Strong learns to deliver a punchline without slipping into a goofy voice.

- As much as it pains me to say this, I think it’s time to retire the Saboski Crystal girls. Even if I did appreciate the reference to Kia’s rapping gerbils.

What did you think of tonight’s premiere?

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